A day of The Expendables: the UK press conference and premiere

The stars of The Expendables, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham, turned out for the explosive movie's press conference and premiere...

It’s not every day you get to meet one of your heroes, let alone three of them. My day of The Expendables is almost indescribable, as my body endlessly pumped out adrenalin in an attempt to keep me conscious.

The press conference took place around noon and, to give you an insight, lasted about half an hour and involves giving a hand gesture to the panel adjudicator at the front, to request a chance to ask a question, much like an auction bid.

The main problem I had was facing off the absolute need to ask questions against the sheer prospect of getting a coherent sentence out in front of Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham.

With everyone keen to ask questions, you also have to hope you get in quick enough before the time runs out, but, thankfully, I managed to ask both Stallone and Statham a question, vindicating my Geek duties and making me buzz for the rest of the day/week/month/year (I suspect).

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The conference was then followed by a quick race home, to get suited and booted for the UK premiere later that day, in which I could drop any pretence of being a professional and happily froth at the mouth, in the way that most befits geekery, which was especially put to the test when all three of them walked past me on the way to the stage, to introduce the film.

Having made our way to the red carpet (there’s a shortcut for us non-celebrities), we were ushered into the cinema, where a live feed from the red carpet kept us entertained while the three big names spent a good amount of time signing as many autographs as possible.

Lisa Snowden grabbed the main stars and a handful of other ‘celebs’ for interviews, while casually getting her facts wrong, but the real standout was a boxer (whose name escapes me), who claimed his favourite Stallone film was Rocky V! He then went on to say how great it was that the two stars of part V were sharing the red carpet with him, so he clearly meant Rocky IV, but what a mistake to make. He’ll be the only person on record to state that Rocky V is the best Stallone film ever made, that’s for sure.

Anyway, The Expendables was even better the second time around, so I really can’t recommend it highly enough, but I’ll let the important people tell you all about it.

The first question was posed by the panel adjudicator, to get the ball rolling:

At the screening I attended last week, there was a massive round of applause before the film even started, and as each star’s name appeared, there were whoops of joy. I just wondered, does that level of excitement and expectation bring extra challenges and an extra responsibility to do something really special with The Expendables?

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Sylvester Stallone: Nah. Common place round my house. Every morning when I wake up my daughters are like, “Hey! Good morning, Dad!” (claps and cheers) It is a lot of pressure cos sometimes you come into a film and you know you have a major turkey and it’s not even Thanksgiving and it’s really bad, but this time – this is the other end of it, where there is a great expectancy and you think, “Jeez, I wasn’t expecting this when we started making it.” So, you began to say, Is this going to live up to the idea of the movie?”

It is kinda complex, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

And Dolph and Jason, what about the level of expectation for you two and that sort of responsibility?

Jason Statham: Well, it’s sort of on Sly, I’m afraid!

SS: Here we go! It’s all on Sly!

JS: No, that’s why you choose to work with people who know what they’re doing. A lot of the time you don’t get such a luxury with that choice.

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SS: Then you had better work with Christopher Nolan now. I’m just guessing my way through this.

Dolph Lundgren: I’ll refrain from saying anything  [laughs]. It’s like fighting in the world championships, instead of the regional championships in sport, I guess. So, this movie is like the world class, the best of all time, so you just want to feel like you can live up to it.

SS: Gotta love that Swedish guy!

DL: [Jokingly] Was that too long!?

Sylvester and Dolph, how would you compare your screen relationship now, compared to 25 years ago in Rocky IV? Is it the same dynamic there?

SS: Actually, that’s a good question. Firstly, I had never trained harder for Rocky IV, after so many Rockys I did like Rocky 90! And Dolph’s English was brutal and he is a world class athlete, so we got to know each other pretty well.

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Then times change, we go through ups and downs, marriages and things and then meeting this time it’s really a pleasure, because, of all the actors I have worked with, he’s remained really the most grounded and humble. Believe me, actors can change a lot, you know. It’s rough. It is very competitive.

Yeah, it has changed, plus I’m dying to kick his brains in cos he really beat me up badly in that movie! And I look at him now and think, “What was I thinking? This guy’s a monster!” Cos in the first film I was like, you know it’s really great, I just saw this fight with Marvin Haggler, and he was fighting for the title, and he went crazy in the first round, so I said, “Dolph, I just want you to try and knock me out, just for the first 30 seconds and I’ll do my best to protect it, I know I can slip it.” He put me in the hospital for days, after 30 seconds.

So, you don’t think I had a grudge? And it is still not over! [to DL] That’s why I shot you!

Dolph, would you like to comment any further?

DL: No, I’m good!

I have a question for Sly and then a question for all of you…

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SS: Yeah you gotta start talking to these guys. They’re going to get a complex. Not really!

Sly, with all the testosterone on set with the cast, did you have an all female crew to balance it out?

SS: Female what?!

How did you balance the testosterone?

SS: Oh! That? You don’t. You just, like, take it. The guys are very aggressive, every one of them. Like, let’s say Jason does an action beat, he’s very physical and you’ll see in the documentary his hands are in ice and he’s leaping on baked ground over and over, and he keeps wanting to do it and I say, “Stop, stop, stop.”

So, then the next fella who has to do his stunt is all, “I am going to kill this guy!” So, he’s smashing and it keeps building in competitiveness. That’s why you have such a physical, testosterone movie, because men are just naturally competitive and they want to keep upping the ante and, thank god there were…. actually, I don’t think there were any women around, and if there were, they were tougher than the guys.

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I mean god, you had to be tough to be on this shoot.

Is there anything you guys wouldn’t do, because you are all pretty fearless?  Is there anything you’d be scared of?

JS:  I won’t wear a flowery shirt, no. The good thing about the way the movies are made, when Sly is in control, is that he shoots a lot of the stunts on camera and a lot of the action directors of today tend to rely on, you know, the movie as a visual, and it tends to get boring because it’s a lot of CG and people don’t really care too much about it.

So, when you’re doing an action movie that requires you know, real men doing real action, it’s an opportunity to do that and that’s what we’re looking for.

SS: Right.

JS: We can’t wait to get stuck in and do that kind of stuff.

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SS: Yeah right. [to DL] Hey, what are you afraid of?

DL: Saying too much.

Question to Sylvester: You’ve got probably the best line-up in action movie history. Is there anyone you wanted to be involved but couldn’t do it, or didn’t want to do it? And how did you get so many names involved?

SS: At first it was just myself, Jason and Jet Li and then it began to build from that and as I started thinking about other characters.

At one time I was thinking about Ben Kingsley as a bad guy and Forrest Whittaker, and I was thinking, “No, that’s not going to fly. Let’s just try and go really old school.” So, I called Dolph and he accepted immediately and was very, very gracious and I told him Jason was on.

Now, I said, and [drops voice to low] no disrespect, there aren’t any real bad asses out there today, guys who just want to get it on. Now, I believe the younger generation, there are guys who may come up and would love to do this, love to show their metal, I really do. I’m not saying they’re reluctant to do it. There just isn’t the opportunity. All young men want to prove themselves, that’s part of it. Even when you get older you still want to prove yourself. It is just in the blood, but there was just none around.

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So, that’s why I went to MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), which is growing and they got us a five time world champion, who is literally ferocious and at the top of his game. Steve Austin is an incredibly powerful human being, whatever you think about wrestling. They’re still tough guys. Big, 250 pounds of just muscle.

We just kept building from there. I called Van Damme and Steven Seagal and they just had different ideas for their career so… I did the best I could! [audience roars]

Sly, in particular, and also Dolph, as well, how has the business changed since you came into it and, in particular, do stars still matter as much? Because few films flaunt their star names as much as this one?.

SS:  You’d better ask these two before they fall asleep! Stars don’t matter that much. They really don’t. Concept matters, the overall originality or re-interpretation of a really classic situation, like Star Wars or Joseph Campbell who did The Man With a Thousand Faces. Whereas in ours, when we started out this little guy, Jason, was, well, a dot, not born! You were a concept.

Dolph and I, you know they put you in a film and they surround you with just guys and they develop characters and you can’t do that today. That’s what I realised. And like Rambo is a one man show and, even the last Rambo, I started doing that more, but those days are numbered. So, yes.

It is pretty much reflective of that, you know. I keep saying ‘you know, you know’, like I’m a rapper! You know, you know, you know!

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There is a lot at stake today, where you went from 400 films a year now down to 200, maybe 150, and when you get down to studio, maybe even less, so the stakes are very high. It is extremely based on the science of what they make. So, there is no more, “Oh, I’ve got a gut feeling,. I’m gonna take a chance. I know everyone says no, but I’m going to try it anyway.” That’s gone. 

It is all scientific. Every actor is weighed against what they are going to bring in from territories. It’s like a math project, it really is.

Sly, how does your faith influence the career choices you make, and do you feel the need to justify the violence in your films?

SS: Well, I have made a lot of career mistakes, a lot and I have made a lot of personal ones too! But the idea is, I never started out to be an action actor. I was an ensemble actor. Rocky was ensemble, F.I.S.T. was ensemble and Paradise Alley was ensemble.

Then along came First Blood and it was the start of something unusual. Once all the dialogue was cut out, it was a completely visual film and I believe the violence is very justifiable.

One thing in my films, is that I only kill people that need to be killed, or killers killing killers. As a matter of fact, one of the scenes we cut out of the movie was what happened to the code. Jason and I go after bad people, and the code died of apathy, showing that I couldn’t care anymore.

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Let me put it this way: the one’s that deserve to get it, get it good and the ones that go after women really get it. You know what I mean. Really get it! You know and people say, “Oh, isn’t that overkill’?”and I think the crime… I’m not going to romance it and have a nasty man, really having his way with a woman, tearing her apart and wrecking her life, and just shoot him with a bullet. It’s too civilised! He’s going to feel real pain and I think the audiences are cut into that cathartic part of that deal.

Now, if you did that in every scene? Well, then it’s a horror film, but yeah, I don’t feel guilty about it at all… but if you want me to, I will!

Jason, what was it like acting with the heroes you grew up watching?

JS: Well, he’s a bit of a bully, actually! He carries a big stick around and starts ordering tea and coffee. It’s a situation whereby you get to know the real man and not the one on camera. It’s not the filmmaker anymore, it’s a regular guy and, to me, that was the best part of working with Sly, that you get to know him as a person and there is no substitute for that.

Did you have to pinch yourself?

JS: You could do that, yeah!

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It’s an old fashioned film in a lot of ways. You know men are real men and you could argue that women are victims…

SS: [Laughs] Well, they’re not really victims, but go on.

Well, you could argue it is slightly prehistoric, perhaps?

SS: No! I mean us? Yeah, definitely! Are you kidding? We were like headwaiters at the last supper. Yes, we had a dinosaur as a house pet. We are old! Well, I am. I am.

As for the women being victims, I know it is like another drawback to the 80s, so I wanted to use that kind of set up, where this woman has a past, she is a patriot, she looks like earlier Sophia Loren. As a matter of fact, I would have the girl looking at Sophia Loren movies and say you are that kind of fiery person, because I didn’t want to go into something that is a little too complex, a little too controversial, a little too politically correct. So, let’s just go back to old school.

But in the end, that girl was water boarded for real, so talk about tough.,Sshe did her own stunts. She was right there with all the guys. She… believe me… that woman is tough!

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How did you juggle acting and directing the film, and filming with Jason?

SS: It’s complex, because my method is to learn everybody’s line. I’ve read the script and learnt the entire script, that way I don’t have to think about it anymore. I can concentrate on them.  And then when I am in a scene, Jason will tell you, he’s always being given different lines in the spur of the moment.

JS: Well, yeah, I mean, that’s the great thing about having a guy that is a writer and a director and happens to star in the movie as well, because you have full leniency to change and improvise and you don’t normally get that. You normally get restriction from some guy who wrote the script and doesn’t want anyone to mess with that, and the director’s not allowed to, so it’s the best situation you could get, but yeah, a lot of humour arises in that.

SS: There is a line in there… did you all see the film? [everyone shouts “Yes!”] Do any of you want your money back? Then, I’ll go on.

The scene, for example, where we have all the Somalian pirates and it’s building up and with the whole ‘guns are faster than blades’ thing and there’s bullets and lasers and its back and forth, and I say, “You want the money, come and get it!” and you hear “eeee.” “What’s that?” “I’m getting a text.” “Excuse me?” Now when I said, “Come and get it,”, I’m just supposed to shoot the pirates. But I said to Jason, “Say ‘I’m getting a text.'” and he says, “What?”‘ and I say, “Say ‘I’m getting a text.'” He says, “I’m not gonna say that!” And the camera’s still rolling, so it goes and I go “eee” and he says, “I’m getting a text.” And I say, “Excuse me?” and then I say to Terry, “Say ‘it had better not be from my wife,'” and he says, “What?!” and I say, “JUST  SAY IT!”, and the camera is still rolling!

So, when we did the documentary, you’ll see how you have the formula. I mean, you have the blueprint and once you have it, let’s just go! And everyone starts to adlib and sometimes that’s where it came from. It was unscripted.

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We had a nice thing, a well-scripted piece, but it didn’t have any eccentricity. Same with Dolph hanging the pirates. It’s crazy, but it’s memorable. Crazy is memorable.

DL is then asked what he thinks, but has clearly zoned out from not being spoken to, so comically pipes up:

DL: Hmm? What? Well, they are right, both of them. I agree!

He may write something when it’s your death scene and he says, “Say this,” and you’re like, “What?” “Just say it!” Yeah, it’s fun. It’s different, but it works.

SS: His death was shot three different ways. One was some kind of Viking funeral thing and Dolph really wanted, but that just kept going and going and going, which I used in the directors’ directors’ rational cut! Irrational cut! The irrational rationale! So, you put all that in.

Now comes my big moment, in which I tried desperately not to cry/laugh hysterically/throw up.

A question to Mr Statham first, if I may. It is your third time working with Jet Li now, and I wondered how instrumental that had been in helping to shape your career as an action star. Because back when you worked with him on The One, Corey Yuen did the fight choreography and then you went on to work on The Transporter with him, and I wondered how much that helped to shape how things have gone?

JS:  Actually, all the movies I have done with Jet, apart from this one, have been no good! [laughs]

SS: You’re too hard on yourself!

JS: It is difficult, because the first movie I did with Jet wasn’t what it was supposed to be (The One), but it gave me the opportunity to work with Corey Yuen, which you know was instrumental in me playing in The Transporter films, and so there was a great relationship that we had there and you know it’s coincidental that we were doing this film together. I mean, it’s not like we tried to beat Sly up and hold him down saying, “We want to do another film together. Make sure we’re in it!”

SS: I think it is also a perfect example of how difficult it is to really get an action film mounted and have it performed and get the proper people. It is just hard. So, finally, it’s great for Jason to see how it was done in the old way, which is a kind of simplification of a very complicated process.

JS: In fact, I’ll add to that, because the films that I have done with Jet Li are very science fiction based and this is why this one works, especially for me, because it harks back to the old school action movies that are basically the ones I’m interested in doing.

(Me again) Just to follow up, there’s a paternal theme that seems to be growing in your films. It was at the heart of Rocky Balboa and arguably in the relationship with Julie Benz’s character in Rambo. It seems very much now, with The Expendables, that there is a paternal element to your relationship with Jason Statham’s character. I wondered how much of that was intentional?

SS: It is very intentional. You know, we’re age appropriate and he would be like the protégé, so he’s like that fella who I confide in and who will eventually take over [from me]. And I tease him about his love life and taking things a little too seriously, sort of like a father and son would do. But, yeah, it is not by accident and the paternal part… for a moment of [drops his voice low] un-levity, I try to always deal with redemption.

I think everyone in this room, everyone on the planet, has a regret. That in one moment they made the wrong decision, and sometimes you can just never get your life back on course. And that theme from Rocky Balboa, to Rambo, it just haunts me. Maybe I’m just mono-minded, or limited, but it’s just inextinguishable. So ,this [monologue] with Mickey Rourke, where he goes, “We used to be something, now we’re worth nothing. We’re crap, because we gave up ‘this’. Ah redemption – how do we get ‘this’ back? By doing something quote ‘charitable.'”

Like she says at the beginning, giving something for nothing is really a gift. Paying for it is not a gift. So, that’s the theme and with Jason and that girl, it pulls full circle, little bits here and there without overburdening the film and turning it into kind of a talk fest, where you couldn’t understand what I say anyway, so why bother!

Sylvester, as the ageing action star, over the last two films, Rocky and Rambo, there was a sense of closure, that you were saying goodbye to your characters. I didn’t get that feeling with The Expendables, so are we going to see more action films from you and Dolph, or is enough ‘enough’ and it’s time to move on to movies that are a bit more mind than muscle?

SS: I don’t know. You see, I’ve done my ‘mind movies’ and probably, I don’t think people are really that interested in seeing me do that anymore. I think I am past my prime of doing like, dramatic films. I think it becomes almost a pathetic cry out to be recognised as a serious dramaturg.

I did my little moment. I am very proud of the drama in Rocky Balboa. It is about as deep as I can go, and Copland, so I would rather just direct dramas. But The Expendables I would like to go on. I would like everyone except him. [points to DL] He’s out! Jason’s in, the rest of them are in!

DL: I talk too much. As you’ve noticed!

SS: You are too tall to work with!

Dolph, you are similarly in that position with the action films, but you have directed five of them. I’ve just watched The Killing Machine, so are you in a position now to be thinking, perhaps, to give up front of camera and stick behind the camera?

DL:  Not really, no. Both are cool. They are different, one is easier than the other. Front of camera is easier and behind is more challenging, it is more work. So, it is fun to do both.

SS: Contrary to the way he looks, he is really smart, seriously. You know, he’s a beautiful guy, 6’52, this Viking guy and 21 stone, with a 29 inch waist and you’re thinking, “he’s gotta be a moron?” and let me tell you, he’s an MIT graduate in chemical engineering,  a full blown scholar! I and I’m like, “Are you serious? Him?” Can you picture him in the lab, over test tubes, going ,‘”Yes, I will cure this rat of something!” The transformation is amazing. He can go from scientist to savage!

Why do you think people fell out of love with the action hero and do you think this film will bring the idea of the action hero back?

SS: [to DL] Ok, you go first and I’ll finish it up.

DL: Oh, ok. Did you ask me, then?

SS: Yes, Dr Lundgren! Yes, professor!

DL: Well, I don’t think you fell out of love. It just changed a little bit. But you know it will change again. Was that short enough?

SS: He is actually right. Every generation has to find their own heroes. I meanv I couldn’t identify with John Wayne. I was with James Dean. You have to find your own heroes and this generation has defined superheroes to be their heroes. That is why we are kind of a novelty. That’s just the way it is.

Look at music, it is unrecognisable from 20 years ago, but that is just the way it is and then maybe it will go retro. Only Jason is current, which is really lucky for us.

Such a stellar cast, if you’d have paid this lot in the 80s it would have cost you everything you ever owned! How did you go about paying for it now? Did you call the favours in? Was it mates’ rates?

SS: A lot of it was. I could never afford Bruce and Arnold. That would be the whole budget of the movie, having to pay for a governor, THE governor, just no. It is amazing. I mean, Jason was a lot of money, but well worth it. I mean, seriously, £100 a week. Unbelievable, plus free fax paper!

You are actually right. It would have been totally impossible and it is one of the reasons they didn’t do it, because everybody back then wanted their price. I mean, things have changed, prices are dropping drastically. You’re lucky to get work, so look at people that were looking to get ,let’s say, ten million, are now taking two, and saying thank you.

This was all favours. This was low budget. Some of these guys basically worked for nothing… meaning me! It is just the way it is. So, maybe it has just come to fruition, because this never could have been done back then, that’s all. I certainly couldn’t have got Arnold back then, not a chance, never. Just too expensive and too busy.

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